For almost three decades, Craigslist has been the go-to online marketplace for a reason – it works. You can list just about anything for sale and no matter what it is, chances are, someone will be interested. As a buyer, you have the freedom to negotiate the price and you don’t have to pay shipping fees because Craigslist is local.
Most of the time, transactions go smoothly. But like any online marketplace, Craigslist also attracts scammers looking for an easy payday. Whether you’re a regular on the site or just thinking about trying it out, here’s a rundown of Craigslist scams to look for and best practices to use as you shop or sell, especially if you have a big-ticket item like a car or a home for sale in mind.
How Common Are Craigslist Scams?
Craigslist is sort of a “Wild West” when compared to other sites of similar popularity. There isn’t much moderation or policing in comparison to the scope of the site. The actual number of Craigslist scams is hard to estimate, as many of them go unreported or the listings expire.
A 2014 study by NYU estimated that 1.5% of real estate listings on Craigslist were fraudulent (29,000 listings out of about 2,000,000 in a 141 day period across 20 cities). This study only examined real estate, so site-wide figures are unknown.
9 Essential Tips To Avoid Craigslist Scams
Even if you don’t detect anything suspicious (but especially if you do), follow these best practices whenever you buy or sell through Craigslist:
- Never wire money in advance
- Only accept cash
- Evaluate listings carefully before agreeing to meet
- Reverse-search photos in listings to make sure they weren’t stolen
- Look for other red flags in the listing to save you time (see “How To Spot A Craigslist Scam” below)
- Make sure the buyer or seller is willing to meet in person
- Always examine the goods in person
- Never give out more information than necessary
- Trust your gut – if something doesn’t feel right, walk away immediately
Crucial Craigslist Safety Tips
Any time you share information online or meet face-to-face with a stranger from the internet, it’s best to take a few precautions. You should carefully evaluate listings and the other party before agreeing to meet face-to-face. Check out Craigslist’s safety guidelines as a starting point. We go into more detail about these safety tips below.
Trust Your Gut – Your Safety Is #1
While violent crimes and thefts aren’t a common occurrence for Craigslist dealings, they are a risk – as they are any time you’re meeting face-to-face with a stranger. Your personal safety is the first priority, items are replaceable. If you find yourself in an unsafe situation, get away as fast as you can and notify authorities when it is safe to do so.
- Always bring your phone and a friend
- Trust yourself, if you feel unsafe – leave
Meet In A Local Public Place
At the very least, you should arrange to meet somewhere that’s well-lit and populated, like a coffee shop, diner or mall. Even better are SafeTrade Stations, which are designated areas at police stations or similar law enforcement buildings.
- “Deal locally and face-to-face” is Craigslist’s number one tip to avoid scams
- Don’t pursue offers that involve shipping, that’s not Craigslist’s M.O.
- Meet at your local police station’s parking lot or a “SafeTrade” location.
It’s always a good idea to bring someone along like a friend or family member. There’s less likelihood of any shady business, and chances are you’ll feel much more comfortable with a familiar face around.
- Bring a friend with you to a public meeting place
- Let a third party know where you’re going and when you’ll be back, or check-in regularly
Deal In Cash – Carefully
Most people know Craigslist is primarily for cash-only deals, which helps prevent sellers from getting scammed. With that said, you don’t want to bring a duffel bag of hundred-dollar bills somewhere. If you’re buying an expensive item, tell the seller you’ll go to an ATM after checking things out – or you could even meet at a bank.
Craigslist becomes riskier as the price of what you’re buying or selling goes up. Be even more cautious when dealing with high-value or rare items.
- Never wire funds
- Be wary about selling or buying high-value items
- Don’t accept checks (certified or cashier) or money orders – if you give the bank a fake, you’ll be held responsible.
Protect Your Identity
The key to avoiding identity theft is always safeguarding your personal details as much as possible. As a seller on Craigslist, be sure to use the site’s proxy email address feature so you don’t have to give out your personal email. As a buyer, you’ll need to use a disposable email service like Mailinator or Maildrop.
Whether you’re buying or selling, you can also avoid giving out your phone number by using Google Voice, which lets you use a different phone number to receive calls and texts on your phone. One more thing if you’re a seller: many smartphones will embed data in the photo about where it was taken. Be sure to erase personal data before posting photos of an item for sale.
- Never give out personal data (address, ZIP code, ID numbers, etc.)
- Never give out financial information (bank account, PayPal account, Social Security, etc.)
- Avoid giving out your primary phone number and email
- Never undergo “background” or “credit checks” without verifying the validity of the offer
- Bonus tip: If you do decide to use personal contact info, spell out numbers and characters in your contact info to keep spam bots from picking it up (example: [at] gmail [dot] com)
How To Spot A Craigslist Scam
There’s no surefire way to spot every Craigslist con, but knowing the most common red flags will make it a lot easier to avoid getting ripped off.
- Communications from someone who isn’t in your area
- Poor spelling or grammar
- A seller who claims to be out of town or otherwise unavailable
- Requests for wire transfers, cashier’s checks or money orders
- Requests for personal details like a Social Security number, PIN code or password
- A buyer or seller who’s anxious to get a deal done quickly
- The person receiving the call is referred to as a “pickup agent”
These same red flags apply to communications as well. Often times, scammers will sound “off.” Keep an eye out for red flags throughout the buying and selling process.
How To Report A Scammer On Craigslist
If you ever spot a suspicious listing, encounter someone trying to pull a fast one or fall victim to a scam on Craigslist, be sure to file a report with Craigslist, especially if the post is still active. Also notify your local authorities immediately – if it’s an emergency situation, call 911; if the situation isn’t an emergency, call your local police station office so they can direct you to the proper department.
Craigslist has curated a list of who to reach out to (in addition to their internal team and local authorities), see those contacts below:
- Internet Fraud Complaint Center
- FTC complaint form and hotline: 877-FTC-HELP (877-382-4357)
- Consumer Sentinel/Military (for armed service members and families)
- SIIA Software and Content Piracy reporting
Common Craigslist Scam Tactics
Since 1995 when the site launched, con artists have tweaked age-old scams and created new ones to target both buyers and sellers. Here are a few of the most common Craigslist cons to watch out for.
Whether you’re buying plane tickets or concert tickets, you need to be on the lookout for fraud. Even if you see photos of the tickets you think you’re buying, they might have been stolen, counterfeited, expired, canceled or might not even exist at all. And if you’re trying to get into a sold-out event, there isn’t always much time to make sure the tickets you get are legit.
So, do your best to validate the tickets with the information you have. Ask for seller’s invoices stating the tickets have been paid for. Get the account number and call the ticket rep for confirmation. In every instance, research the tickets you’re buying as much as you can to make sure everything checks out.
- Scammers posts sold-out tickets, stolen or fake “discounted” tickets
- If you can’t verify the tickets with the event venue, don’t go through with the deal
How To Avoid This:
Avoid buying resale tickets on Craigslist. Verified resale sites might cost more, but you know they’re real. Facebook Marketplace or Groups are safer bets because you can better vet the seller, but they’re also not foolproof.
The Overpaying Buyer
This involves a scammer posing as a buyer who sends you a check or money order that exceeds the agreed-upon price. The fake buyer will apologize for sending too much and request that you send back the difference. Only trouble is, the check or money order is fake. Oftentimes, sellers won’t realize this until they’ve sent a check of their own to the scammer and it’s too late.
Also, look out for buyers who don’t ask enough questions about the product, don’t try to negotiate or offer to pay for shipping. Scammers will pay you for what you’re selling and pay with a check and then request the item. It’s usually too late after you’ve sent the item when your bank lets you know the check you deposited is fake.
- Scammers will “buy” your offer and send a fake check for over the asking price then request you send back the extra balance
- Scammers will “buy” your offer, pay with a fraudulent check and then request the item
How To Avoid This:
Do business in-person and with cash. Don’t deal with people who want you to ship items, ask them to go through eBay or a different shipping service if they’re truly serious.
Spoof Sites And Social Engineering
As the public has grown wary of phony websites and giving out personal information, con artists have upped their game when it comes to creating phony sites. Crafty web designers can create sites that look almost identical to Craigslist pages, with words like “Certified” and “Official” sprinkled throughout as you’re asked to submit personal information.
Another common fake-out involves escrow services for big money sales. In escrow scams, a supposedly legitimate third-party company holds on to payment until a buyer gets what they’re paying for. Many of these sites look legit, but as soon as you deposit any money, it’s gone.
Craigslist also warns that they never leave voicemails or request information or payment from users. If “Craigslist” reaches out to you, contact Craigslist on their official site with a screenshot of the request you received. From there, they can verify the validity of the original request. Craigslist doesn’t offer protection or verification fees or services; these are fake, too:
- Phony pages crafted to look like Craigslist
- Third-party scam sites that will “hold” your payment
- Phishing (fake) emails or voicemails from “Craigslist”
- “Craigslist” purchase protection fees and services
How To Avoid This:
Visit the real Craigslist site for any offers, don’t click links in emails and don’t send money to any third-party sites or people claiming to work for Craigslist.
Dream Job Offer
There are many legitimate job postings on Craigslist every day, but scammers and identity thieves will use this to their advantage. They’ll post a job that’s too good to resist, with great pay, minimal requirements, and possibly work-from-home benefits. Once you’ve applied, they’ll request personal information for “background checks” so they can steal or sell your identity.
In another example, the scammer will ask you (the job applicant) for application fees or some other dubious payment. Then when it comes time for an interview, the scammer will go silent and get away with your money.
- The scammer will lure applicants in and then steal their identity when the applicant agrees to a fake “background check”
- The scammer poses as a company and posts a job that doesn’t exist to convince applicants to pay for fake application fees
How To Avoid This:
If you see a job that piques your interest, go to the company website and check it out. Sites can be faked as well, so look for reviews of the company online, and check out their social media and employee ratings (Glassdoor). Once you’ve determined the position is real, then you can apply.
Real job applications or interviewers will never ask for any type of payment, steer clear of anything that does.
The Real Estate Deal You Can’t Refuse
A common Craigslist scam in the rental section involves a “homeowner” listing a home for rent, complete with all the details and plenty of photos. After you express interest, the scammer will explain that they’re out of town or dealing with a messy divorce, and as a result, they’re looking to rent the place out fast but unfortunately aren’t available for a showing.
You’ll be asked to wire a deposit and first month’s rent in advance if you want to take advantage of the bargain, after which you’ll never hear from the fake seller again. In some cases, scammers rent out a place and list it as if it were their own. This allows them to show the place off and collect deposits and down payments before skipping town.
- The “homeowner” will post a property that they don’t have the right to rent
- The posting is completely fake, stolen from another site or created using stock images
- There are extenuating circumstances as to why they’re rushing to rent the place
- They push for payment without you seeing the property first
How To Avoid This:
Never wire money. Never put a payment down for a rental without seeing the place and receiving legitimate legal documents (i.e. the lease). Reverse search listing images and look up the property on other sites.
See more tips relating to real estate in the section below.
Real Estate And Craigslist Scams
Sections that feature big-ticket items like cars and homes are immensely popular on Craigslist, but they also attract a significant amount of spam and scams. Most fraudulent postings and inquiries are obvious and easily ignored – though still a pain to sift through. Others are far more sophisticated, which means you always need to stay alert.
When it comes to homes, many real estate agents and for sale by owners use the site primarily before open houses. Because there’s no fee to use it and it reaches so many people quickly, Craigslist is a great way to drum up a lot of interest. See some tips specifically for buyers and sellers below.
Safety Tips For Home Buyers
As a buyer, you can see a lot of homes for sale in one place on Craigslist and use it before setting out to do some FSBO house-hunting. Before visiting a listing as a buyer:
- Contact the seller for more details
- Ask for additional photos not shown on Craigslist
- Cross-reference with other home listing sites – serious sellers will list on other sites
- Reverse image search the property images
- Bring someone with you, preferably during a public open house
- Ask a friend in real estate if the listing looks legitimate
- Trust your gut and don’t go into a situation that you don’t feel comfortable with
How To List Your Home On Craigslist Safely
The most important aspects of an attention-grabbing listing that drives visibility include your headline, property images, proper pricing and how frequently you give the listing a refresh. But optimizing your listing isn’t the most important part when posting on Craigslist – safety should be priority number one.
When you write your headline, avoid using your home’s address or the number of bedrooms and bathrooms. In most cases, a blur of numbers won’t stand out and draw a buyer in. Instead, make sure your headline has at least a little appeal and is location-specific – something like “Beautifully Furnished Springfield Home for Sale.” The same goes for your property description, don’t give away any personal information. Keep it just vague enough that it still drums up interest.
It’s always important to protect yourself and your belongings when you show your home to prospective buyers, and even more so when you publicize it to the kind of massive audience Craigslist attracts. It’s best practice to remove photos of your family, valuable decor pieces and jewelry from view in your staged home photos.
Be sure to remove all valuables, keys, personal photos and prescription drugs from the property. Ask a neighbor to keep an eye out as people come and go. Also, check with your insurance carrier so you know what your policy covers, just to be safe.
Bottom line: Craigslist is a highly beneficial tool to buy or sell anything, as long as you’re aware of the risks and how to avoid the dangers. This goes double for buying or selling something that can have a major impact on your financial future, like a car or a home. Click the button below to save essential Craigslist tips.
Craigslist is great for generating and providing visibility if you are selling your own home. But when it comes to big-money deals, it’s typically best used as one marketing tool among many other tools like social media to broaden your buyer audience. It’s also important to house your listing on a more sophisticated for sale by owner platform. Looking to get started? We’re happy to help you optimize your listing and home pricing for a maximum return.